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Dear Friends, 

At this difficult time, I add my voice to all those who have condemned the brutal murder of George Floyd and stand in solidarity with all who lawfully fight racism, bigotry and hatred. Our world will take a giant step forward when we all finally realize one simple truth which is that every human being regardless of race, religion, or color, is endowed with Divine dignity, and consequently, deserves the utmost respect. 

While recognizing the right of people to protest peacefully, I am outraged by the lawlessness of those committing acts of violence or looting, which are not acceptable under any circumstances. We call upon our government and law enforcement to take whatever action necessary to restore law, order, and justice to our communities. 

In looking for the way to express my thoughts on current events, I luckily found the following article penned by the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby titled “Indecent Cops, Indecent Rioters.”

“There are two races of men in this world,” wrote the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, the profoundly influential book he published about his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. “Only these two – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”

Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who used his knee to press George Floyd’s neck to the ground until he died in agony, belongs to the race of the indecent. So do Gregory McMichael – an ex-cop – and his son Travis McMichael, the two Georgia men who pursued and gunned down an unarmed Ahmaud Arbery after seeing him jog past their home. So does any police officer who deliberately uses deadly violence against someone who has no weapon and poses no threat.

The race of the indecent does not include men and women who are infuriated at the sight of injustice or police brutality. It does not include those who respond with nonviolent protests, demonstrations, marches, or civil disobedience. There is nothing indecent about those who cry out in horror and anger at the death of Floyd and Arbery, or demand political change to prevent such atrocities, or insist that the full weight of the law be brought to bear against those responsible for committing them.

But the legions of the indecent most certainly do include those whose reaction to the terrible violence inflicted against Floyd is to inflict their own violence – smashing, burning, robbing, and even killing – against others. There is nothing decent about the riots that erupted in dozens of cities over the last few days. There was only pointless destruction and inexcusable lawlessness. More lives were lost and countless businesses ruined. If the killing of Floyd was a sickening illustration of what the “race of the indecent” are responsible for, so is the anguish of black business owners, weeping to see their life’s savings reduced to rubble and ash.

Sickening, too, are those on the sidelines cheering as neighborhoods go up in flames, such as the filmmaker Michael Moore extolling the “good citizens burning down the evil police precinct,” or Essence magazine publishing a column urging rioters to “Burn It All Down.”

During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which scores of people died and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage was inflicted on mostly Korean-owned businesses, the rap artist Sister Souljah was one of those cheerleaders. In an interview with the Washington Post, she applauded the “rebellion” that was shattering much of the city and endorsed even more bloodshed:

I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I'm saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?

The most memorable response to Souljah’s incitement came from Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor who was then running for president. Speaking before Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in June, Clinton condemned the rapper’s words . He quoted her poisonous comments to the Post and an earlier interview in which she said all whites have a “low-down, dirty nature” and that “if there are any good white people, I haven’t met them.” Clinton told his audience: “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton took some heat for his rebuke – Souljah called him a racist and Jackson defended her. But most Americans appreciated his public stand against extremism. The phrase “Sister Souljah moment” entered the lexicon as a reference to the repudiation of extremists, even when that repudiation might rub one’s allies the wrong way.

America today, far more bitterly polarized than it was in 1992, could really use some Sister Souljah moments. But there is little inclination in political circles, and even less among the media, to cool the fevers of racial grievance.

No one thinks that what happened to George Floyd was anything but horrifying and enraging. In a society where almost everything is bitterly disputed, the revulsion over Floyd’s death, and the desire to see his killers brought to justice, is practically universal. This is not a country that thinks it’s OK for police to kill black men. “I hope these cops are dealt with good and hard,” conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh told his huge radio audience. What they did to Floyd, he said, “makes me so mad I can’t see straight.”

There was a time in this country when black men could indeed be killed by whites with impunity, and when those witnessing their deaths were apt to be celebrating them. Morally, psychologically, and politically, we are light years removed from that era. Yet it has become politically incorrect to say so. Anyone who tries can expect to be shouted down by loud voices insisting that slavery and Jim Crow stamped America forever, leaving it irremediably racist to the core.

Police brutality is too common in this country. Some people have no business being entrusted with a gun, a badge, and the power to arrest. All the same, the Washington Post noted last year, killings by cops are “rare outcomes” in a nation with “millions of encounters between police officers and the public.” When those rare outcomes do occur, according to the Post (which has been tracking the data since 2014, when Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.), the racial breakdown is surprisingly consistent: “45% white men; 23% black men; and 16% Hispanic men. Women have accounted for about 5% of those killed, and people in mental distress about 25% of all shootings.” In the overwhelming majority of cases, the person killed was armed; only 4% had no weapon. The killing of George Floyd, in other words, was an exception, not the rule. Saying so doesn’t make his fate less appalling, it makes it more so. To see such a thing happen to a fellow citizen is especially harrowing because it is such a desecration of what America stands for.

It was an intolerable killing, and no one is tolerating it. The men responsible were fired within a day. Chauvin has been charged with murder.

But just as intolerable is the stupefying mayhem being unleashed across the country in Floyd’s name.

“I am heartbroken. Waking up this morning to see Minneapolis on fire would be something that would devastate Floyd,” his fiancée Courteney Ross told the Minnesota Star Tribune. She described him as the most spiritual man she ever knew – “he stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.”

His employer, Jovanni Thunstrom, felt the same way: “He didn’t discriminate,” Jovanni said in an interview. “Whether you were Hispanic, you were black, you were white – he treated everybody with respect and that’s what I love about him.”

As Viktor Frankl might have said, Floyd was of the race of the decent man. It only compounds the indecency of his death that it is being used as a justification for riots.

Blog #2:

If a Rabbi could speak to the Rioters - what would he say? I think that part of the answer can be found in the following article written by Rebbitzen Emunah Braverman, a long time LA resident. 

The stories that sparked the riots are terrible, speaking of unbearable pain and injustice – but that I really don’t see a connection between racism/police brutality and looting Louis Vuitton stores or Target or the local mom and pop shops...I don’t understand how or why graffiti on synagogues is in any way an appropriate response.

Does anyone really believe this is the way to right the wrongs? Is any and all anger and violence justified in the face of racism?

How unfortunate that the young go out and destroy that which it took their parents years to build. In 1992 many stores were burned and ransacked in the very neighborhoods where the rioters lived, enterprises that their parents had spent the previous 40 years building. 

There is energy among the young; there can be vision and idealism but so much lack of perspective.

The Talmud says, “If old men say 'destroy' and young men say 'build up', you should destroy and not build up because destruction by old men is considered construction and construction by boys is destruction.”

The Torah is frequently admonishing us to know our place. This means to recognize our unique strengths and weaknesses, to focus on the hand we are dealt and not the one we wish we were dealt or the hand that others were dealt. Certainly, an aspect of this is recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of our age. What wisdom and life experience am I lacking at 25? What physical strength and drive am I lacking at 60? It is only with those recognitions in mind that we can make wise decisions.

In the book of Kings, there is a story about Rechavam, the son of King Solomon. When he took over the throne the coffers were depleted, and he very much wanted to impose a heavy tax on the people. His older advisers suggested that he wait. He should take time to consolidate his power and build a relationship of trust with the people. His younger advisers were less patient. They reminded him of the heavy taxes his father imposed and suggested that he impose even heavier ones! Young himself (and eager for the income), Rechavam listened to his younger, more “sympatico” advisers. This ultimately led to the deaths of the tax collectors and the splitting of the kingdom.

I don’t expect such dire consequences now. I am hopeful that, having survived riots in the past, the city of Los Angeles (and other cities across America) will survive them again. I think that with the good will of the majority of the American people, and with the Almighty’s help, we will survive and recover. But...of course, the timing is terrible. Just as stores and malls were about to open up, they have been looted and destroyed. In their naive desire to punish “the rich” they end up hurting themselves. For all the landlords and store owners who are taking a hit, there are hundreds, probably thousands of lower income workers who are hurt by this destructive behavior. Without perspective, we end up damaging the very people we want to help.

The Mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers teaches: “Who is the wise man? The one who foresees the consequences.” This is so powerful. We are all susceptible to our emotions. We all have the potential to react in negative ways out of anger, pain, frustration, jealousy – you name the bad character traits, we all have them! But a wise person doesn’t just stop himself because he doesn’t want to listen to his negative self (although that’s certainly an important component); a wise person stops himself because he sees the future consequences. Where will this lead? Will it accomplish my goals? Will it encourage others to join our mission or alienate them?

I’m not going to list all the possible questions; that’s not the point. The point is that they should be asked. The point is that a reaction should be rational and methodical. The point is that goals are accomplished through strategy and unity, that we as a country need to work together.

What happened in Minnesota was an appalling tragedy. There are no words to adequately convey how wrong and terrible and painful it was. It is shocking to me that that level of police racism, abuse and brutality still exists. And justice must be meted out.

Unfortunately, the reaction was also wrong. We haven’t learned from recent history and we haven’t learned our lessons from the Prophets either! Maybe, just maybe, we can learn them for the future.

Dear Friends, 

At this difficult time, I add my voice to all those who have condemned the brutal murder of George Floyd and stand in solidarity with all who lawfully fight racism, bigotry and hatred. Our world will take a giant step forward when we all finally realize one simple truth which is that every human being regardless of race, religion, or color, is endowed with Divine dignity, and consequently, deserves the utmost respect. 

While recognizing the right of people to protest peacefully, I am outraged by the lawlessness of those committing acts of violence or looting, which are not acceptable under any circumstances. We call upon our government and law enforcement to take whatever action necessary to restore law, order, and justice to our communities. 

In looking for the way to express my thoughts on current events, I luckily found the following article penned by the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby titled “Indecent Cops, Indecent Rioters.”

“There are two races of men in this world,” wrote the psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, the profoundly influential book he published about his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. “Only these two – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”

Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who used his knee to press George Floyd’s neck to the ground until he died in agony, belongs to the race of the indecent. So do Gregory McMichael – an ex-cop – and his son Travis McMichael, the two Georgia men who pursued and gunned down an unarmed Ahmaud Arbery after seeing him jog past their home. So does any police officer who deliberately uses deadly violence against someone who has no weapon and poses no threat.

The race of the indecent does not include men and women who are infuriated at the sight of injustice or police brutality. It does not include those who respond with nonviolent protests, demonstrations, marches, or civil disobedience. There is nothing indecent about those who cry out in horror and anger at the death of Floyd and Arbery, or demand political change to prevent such atrocities, or insist that the full weight of the law be brought to bear against those responsible for committing them.

But the legions of the indecent most certainly do include those whose reaction to the terrible violence inflicted against Floyd is to inflict their own violence – smashing, burning, robbing, and even killing – against others. There is nothing decent about the riots that erupted in dozens of cities over the last few days. There was only pointless destruction and inexcusable lawlessness. More lives were lost and countless businesses ruined. If the killing of Floyd was a sickening illustration of what the “race of the indecent” are responsible for, so is the anguish of black business owners, weeping to see their life’s savings reduced to rubble and ash.

Sickening, too, are those on the sidelines cheering as neighborhoods go up in flames, such as the filmmaker Michael Moore extolling the “good citizens burning down the evil police precinct,” or Essence magazine publishing a column urging rioters to “Burn It All Down.”

During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which scores of people died and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage was inflicted on mostly Korean-owned businesses, the rap artist Sister Souljah was one of those cheerleaders. In an interview with the Washington Post, she applauded the “rebellion” that was shattering much of the city and endorsed even more bloodshed:

I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I'm saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?

The most memorable response to Souljah’s incitement came from Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor who was then running for president. Speaking before Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in June, Clinton condemned the rapper’s words . He quoted her poisonous comments to the Post and an earlier interview in which she said all whites have a “low-down, dirty nature” and that “if there are any good white people, I haven’t met them.” Clinton told his audience: “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton took some heat for his rebuke – Souljah called him a racist and Jackson defended her. But most Americans appreciated his public stand against extremism. The phrase “Sister Souljah moment” entered the lexicon as a reference to the repudiation of extremists, even when that repudiation might rub one’s allies the wrong way.

America today, far more bitterly polarized than it was in 1992, could really use some Sister Souljah moments. But there is little inclination in political circles, and even less among the media, to cool the fevers of racial grievance.

No one thinks that what happened to George Floyd was anything but horrifying and enraging. In a society where almost everything is bitterly disputed, the revulsion over Floyd’s death, and the desire to see his killers brought to justice, is practically universal. This is not a country that thinks it’s OK for police to kill black men. “I hope these cops are dealt with good and hard,” conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh told his huge radio audience. What they did to Floyd, he said, “makes me so mad I can’t see straight.”

There was a time in this country when black men could indeed be killed by whites with impunity, and when those witnessing their deaths were apt to be celebrating them. Morally, psychologically, and politically, we are light years removed from that era. Yet it has become politically incorrect to say so. Anyone who tries can expect to be shouted down by loud voices insisting that slavery and Jim Crow stamped America forever, leaving it irremediably racist to the core.

Police brutality is too common in this country. Some people have no business being entrusted with a gun, a badge, and the power to arrest. All the same, the Washington Post noted last year, killings by cops are “rare outcomes” in a nation with “millions of encounters between police officers and the public.” When those rare outcomes do occur, according to the Post (which has been tracking the data since 2014, when Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.), the racial breakdown is surprisingly consistent: “45% white men; 23% black men; and 16% Hispanic men. Women have accounted for about 5% of those killed, and people in mental distress about 25% of all shootings.” In the overwhelming majority of cases, the person killed was armed; only 4% had no weapon. The killing of George Floyd, in other words, was an exception, not the rule. Saying so doesn’t make his fate less appalling, it makes it more so. To see such a thing happen to a fellow citizen is especially harrowing because it is such a desecration of what America stands for.

It was an intolerable killing, and no one is tolerating it. The men responsible were fired within a day. Chauvin has been charged with murder.

But just as intolerable is the stupefying mayhem being unleashed across the country in Floyd’s name.

“I am heartbroken. Waking up this morning to see Minneapolis on fire would be something that would devastate Floyd,” his fiancée Courteney Ross told the Minnesota Star Tribune. She described him as the most spiritual man she ever knew – “he stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.”

His employer, Jovanni Thunstrom, felt the same way: “He didn’t discriminate,” Jovanni said in an interview. “Whether you were Hispanic, you were black, you were white – he treated everybody with respect and that’s what I love about him.”

As Viktor Frankl might have said, Floyd was of the race of the decent man. It only compounds the indecency of his death that it is being used as a justification for riots.

Blog #2:

If a Rabbi could speak to the Rioters - what would he say? I think that part of the answer can be found in the following article written by Rebbitzen Emunah Braverman, a long time LA resident. 

The stories that sparked the riots are terrible, speaking of unbearable pain and injustice – but that I really don’t see a connection between racism/police brutality and looting Louis Vuitton stores or Target or the local mom and pop shops...I don’t understand how or why graffiti on synagogues is in any way an appropriate response.

Does anyone really believe this is the way to right the wrongs? Is any and all anger and violence justified in the face of racism?

How unfortunate that the young go out and destroy that which it took their parents years to build. In 1992 many stores were burned and ransacked in the very neighborhoods where the rioters lived, enterprises that their parents had spent the previous 40 years building. 

There is energy among the young; there can be vision and idealism but so much lack of perspective.

The Talmud says, “If old men say 'destroy' and young men say 'build up', you should destroy and not build up because destruction by old men is considered construction and construction by boys is destruction.”

The Torah is frequently admonishing us to know our place. This means to recognize our unique strengths and weaknesses, to focus on the hand we are dealt and not the one we wish we were dealt or the hand that others were dealt. Certainly, an aspect of this is recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of our age. What wisdom and life experience am I lacking at 25? What physical strength and drive am I lacking at 60? It is only with those recognitions in mind that we can make wise decisions.

In the book of Kings, there is a story about Rechavam, the son of King Solomon. When he took over the throne the coffers were depleted, and he very much wanted to impose a heavy tax on the people. His older advisers suggested that he wait. He should take time to consolidate his power and build a relationship of trust with the people. His younger advisers were less patient. They reminded him of the heavy taxes his father imposed and suggested that he impose even heavier ones! Young himself (and eager for the income), Rechavam listened to his younger, more “sympatico” advisers. This ultimately led to the deaths of the tax collectors and the splitting of the kingdom.

I don’t expect such dire consequences now. I am hopeful that, having survived riots in the past, the city of Los Angeles (and other cities across America) will survive them again. I think that with the good will of the majority of the American people, and with the Almighty’s help, we will survive and recover. But...of course, the timing is terrible. Just as stores and malls were about to open up, they have been looted and destroyed. In their naive desire to punish “the rich” they end up hurting themselves. For all the landlords and store owners who are taking a hit, there are hundreds, probably thousands of lower income workers who are hurt by this destructive behavior. Without perspective, we end up damaging the very people we want to help.

The Mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers teaches: “Who is the wise man? The one who foresees the consequences.” This is so powerful. We are all susceptible to our emotions. We all have the potential to react in negative ways out of anger, pain, frustration, jealousy – you name the bad character traits, we all have them! But a wise person doesn’t just stop himself because he doesn’t want to listen to his negative self (although that’s certainly an important component); a wise person stops himself because he sees the future consequences. Where will this lead? Will it accomplish my goals? Will it encourage others to join our mission or alienate them?

I’m not going to list all the possible questions; that’s not the point. The point is that they should be asked. The point is that a reaction should be rational and methodical. The point is that goals are accomplished through strategy and unity, that we as a country need to work together.

What happened in Minnesota was an appalling tragedy. There are no words to adequately convey how wrong and terrible and painful it was. It is shocking to me that that level of police racism, abuse and brutality still exists. And justice must be meted out.

Unfortunately, the reaction was also wrong. We haven’t learned from recent history and we haven’t learned our lessons from the Prophets either! Maybe, just maybe, we can learn them for the future.

 

Blog #1:

Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity and Perseverance. What exactly do the names of these Mars rovers have to do with the holiday of Shavuot? Once again, Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s keen eye has identified an interesting connection between an upcoming contemporary event and Judaism in his newest article, “Perseverance: NASA’s Mars Project and Preparing for Shavuot.”                                                                             

Together with Jews around the world I’ve been busy since Passover counting the days. No, I don’t mean how long I’ve been confined to my home or how many weeks it’s been since I was able to pray in a synagogue. I’ve been fulfilling the mitzvah to count the 49 days between the holiday marking our deliverance from Egypt to the magnificent moment when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai.

The Counting of the Omer is a meaningful way to link the festival of freedom with its ultimate purpose of receiving the Torah on the holiday of Shavuot. The midrash compares it to a bride counting the days from her engagement to the ultimate joy of her wedding. The count expresses our anticipation of our marriage to God under the chuppah of Mount Sinai which miraculously hovered over our heads as we listened to the thunderous voice of the Almighty proclaiming the 10 Commandments.

Interestingly, the name selected by NASA for its next rover headed to Mars expresses the key lesson we need to take to heart as we prepare to receive the Torah.

NASA is the scientific embodiment of the human effort to transcend our earthly limitations. Somehow, from the depths of our souls, we know there must be more than the globe on which we live. The profound quest for probing the mysteries of the universe is testament to our spiritual awareness of a greater universe – and of a Divine creator.

NASA’s missions deserve names worthy of their historic significance. In its early years, NASA failed this challenge. The seven landers to survey the surface of the moon between 1966 and 1968 in preparation for the landings of Apollo astronauts were simply the word Surveyor followed by a number. The probes that flew past Mars, Venus and Mercury were Mariner 1 through 10, and Viking 1 and Viking 2 were the rockets that NASA successfully landed on Mars in 1976.

Then NASA had a great idea. Beginning with the Pathfinder mission in 1997, NASA turned to schoolchildren with a naming contest. In 2003, the choices of Sofi Collis, a precocious nine-year-old who was born in Siberia, gave us the emotionally moving names Spirit and Opportunity because, as Sofi wrote, “I used to live in an orphanage. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the Spirit and the Opportunity.”

This year as well, as NASA was completing plans for the Mars mission scheduled for the red planet this summer, a contest was held for children ranging from kindergartners to high schoolers. There were 28,000 entries and 155 semifinalists. The winner was a seventh grader from Springfield, Virginia. The winning name? One word: Perseverance.

Alexander Mather, in his winning essay, explained: “Curiosity. Insight. Spirit. Opportunity. If you think about it, all of these names of past Mars rovers are qualities we possess as humans. We are always curious and seek opportunity. We have the spirit and insight to explore the moon, Mars and beyond. But, if rovers are to be the qualities of us as a race, we missed the most important thing. Perseverance.”

Perseverance is what will bring us to Mars this summer. Perseverance is what will permit us to escape our earthly confines. Perseverance is what will allow us to reach beyond our physical limitations – and get closer to God.

It is true for space travel, just as it is true for our spiritual journey as well.

How do we make the trip from Egypt to Sinai, from the confines of physical bondage to the soaring liberation of holiness? It is not easy to reach the top of a mountain. Living up to the demands of Mount Sinai is a harder climb than reaching the top of Mount Everest. It requires commitment. It requires dedication. But most of all it requires perseverance. Benjamin Disraeli summed it up best: “Through perseverance people win success out of what seemed destined to be certain failure.”

That is the real meaning of counting the days until Shavuot. It is fascinating that the very name of the holiday commemorating our acceptance of the Torah is a word that does not mention the event of that day but rather the preparation for it in the days preceding. Shavuot means weeks – the weeks of perseverance leading up to it which make our commitment to Torah possible.

How can every one of us achieve the ideal of lives committed to holiness, of lives exemplifying the best and the noblest as defined by God himself? It is by way of the one word, perseverance, that will take us to Mars – and beyond that, to Heaven itself.

.

Blog #2:

The following article titled “The Novominsker Rebbe, My Cousin,” is a tribute to Rav Ya’akov Perlow ob”m written by his “religiously distant” relative Susannah Heschel (daughter of Abraham Yehoshua Heschel). It is an incredibly important lesson in what being an Orthodox Jew is all about. 

With the tragic death of each great rabbi, the Mishnah Sotah teaches, all Israel is diminished and bereft: We lose the unique gifts of that individual person who has taught and guided us. Yet it is not the same view from heaven: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:14).

The Novominsker rebbe, z”l, died from the horrific COVID-19 plague, and we are diminished by the loss of an extraordinary person, a rebbe who guided us, uplifted us; a bridge builder and a model of how to be a Jew. 

His grandfather and my grandmother were twins, back in Warsaw. Their pictures are on my living room wall, his picture hangs above my desk, and a small photo of his father is in my wallet. How odd, some might think, that the grandchildren of these twins would lead such divergent lives.

Since his death, many have written about private meetings with the rebbe and the ways he helped them—with a show of public kindness for a young boy who felt alienated from his peers, with generosity and sympathy for a husband or wife who had lost a close family member. Together with the rebbetzin, his home was open, and he was always available to listen, console and advise. From him I learned that human kindness brings people to deeper devotion to God.

The Novominsker came from an extraordinary lineage of Hasidic rebbes, including the Rizhiner, the Kotzker, the Chernobler, and Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. His grandfather, Alter Shimon Yisroel Perlow of Warsaw, had established the first Hasidic yeshiva in Poland. An illustrious lineage can leave some people overwhelmed and intimidated, while others rebel; what is extraordinary is how the Novominsker took his distinguished heritage and extended its significance.

Rare among Hasidic rebbes today, the Novominsker had a university education and studied under the very distinguished rabbinic authority, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zz”l, director of the Chaim Berlin yeshiva, which embodies the Lithuanian school of Talmud study in New York City. Subsequently, the Novominsker taught at the modern Orthodox yeshiva in Skokie, Illinois, and then the Samson Raphael Hirsch yeshiva in New York, which represents German Orthodoxy’s Breuer community.

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow in 2019COURTESY AGUDATH ISRAEL OF AMERICA

What was his message? To build bridges. When he established the Novominsker yeshiva in Brooklyn, he declared “The Beis Halevi and Kedushas Levi will sit side by side on the shelf, equally cherished.” That is, the works of both Brisk and Berdichev that had been worlds apart would now be studied in concert. His yeshiva brought together the punctilious observance of mitzvot based on the intensive Talmud study cultivated by the methods of the Lithuanian yeshivas with the piety, kavana, and gentleness of Hasidic practice and tradition.

Appointed head of Agudas Yisroel and the president of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in 1998, he brought profound Talmud learning—he authored the Eidas Yaakov, a commentary on the Talmud—as well as a wide view of the world to that august position. I could talk with him about the latest scholarship in Israel in Jewish studies just as easily as family matters.

This unusual combination of learning was clear in his many speeches to gatherings of Agudas Yisroel and Torah Umesorah: He was deeply learned in rabbinics and sharply intelligent, but he also had a tenderness of heart and a capacious soul. To hear his speeches was to realize that he didn’t simply speak for himself but embodied his family heritage. 

At the Agudos Yisroel gatherings, his speeches included calls to overcome division: Jews must pray for all Jews, “acheinu klal Yisroel.” When the editors of the new Haredi magazine, Mishpocha, went to the Novominsker for a brocha, he told them its focus should be “Ahavas Eretz Yisrael,” to “show the chein and kedushah of Eretz Yisrael.”

At the same time, his speeches often included diatribes against innovations; he was opposed to “open Orthodoxy” and to many of the changes brought about by the Jewish feminist movement, and he also rejected state interference in Jewish religious life, including efforts to stop metzitza b’peh at the bris. 

I didn’t always agree with him any more than I expected him to agree with me, but I respected him, and I looked for common ground. Most of all, I felt inspired by his courage and his kindness.

But he did not always reject the state, nor did he disparage science or medicine. On the contrary, in a video he recorded shortly before his death, he warned us that we are now confronted by a terrible disease, COVID-19, and we have to close our synagogues and yeshivas, though prayer and learning continue. He was firm: “We must know the facts from the infectious disease specialists … And it is Halacha, Jewish law, to obey the doctors and stay home to save lives.”

As the leader of Agudos Yisroel, the Novominsker concerned himself with all aspects of Jewish life. He worried about those who had given up the observance of mitzvot but also worried about those Haredi Jews who might have lost their way, whether mired in personal unhappiness or losing the ruach and kavana in their observance. To him, we were all one, all Jews as a family, and for the Novominsker, family was all-important.

From his mother’s Kotzker heritage, the Novominsker knew that the Kotzker rebbe had taught that our Judaism must be authentic to who we are; to be Jewish in imitation of others would be spiritual plagiarism. The Kotzker transmitted a teaching of Simcha Bunam: Though the Torah was given but once, it must be received every day. The giving of Torah was offered in equal measure to all of Israel, but the acceptance of Torah was not the same for everybody, since each individual acquires it according to his spiritual capacity.

While the Novominsker never endorsed changes in Jewish law or observance, the Kotzker’s views are reflected in his understanding and love of his extended family. He accepted those of us who fall outside the Agudos Yisroel framework: Family must be close and caring, he said at the funeral of our cousin, Miriam Rabinowicz, the daughter of the Bialer rebbe who had become an artist.

There are many people in the world to admire: Brilliant scholars who dazzle us and write important books with all sorts of new insights. There are pious Jews whom we respect for their devotion to God and Torah. But the Novominsker was different. He was brilliant and he was pious, certainly, but he was not the sort of person to be placed on a pedestal and admired from afar; rather, he was a person of deeds who wanted to inspire us. How can we emulate him?

The Novominsker was the head of Agudas Yisroel, the international organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews, while I am professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a place of limited Yiddishkeit. I am not a rebbe but I have met rebbes and I think of them and try to incorporate something of their values in my life. I think of the Novominsker, of his immense learning, his self-discipline, his intellectual acuity, his effort to know the world and not shy away from it. More important, I am inspired by his warmth and kindness; he was a true Hasidic rebbe who opened his heart to all who came to him seeking advice and comfort, and he listened, offered understanding and support, gestures of kindness that brought them closer to God, Torah and mitzvot.

How can I transmit some of the Novominsker’s rebbeshe qualities to my students? I give them lectures on Jewish history, they read and memorize the facts, repeat them on the exams, and master the material. But what of the essence? What I want them to know is something of the Jewish spirit that, for me, has been revealed to me by the Hasidic rebbes I have known. My father used to say that schools do not need more textbooks, they need more text people—teachers whose qualities of spirit the students learn to emulate.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches that God says the following: “Honor the mitzvot, for the mitzvot are My deputies, and a deputy is endowed with the authority of his principal. If you honor the mitzvot, it is as if you have honored Me; if you dishonor them, it is as if you dishonored Me.” 

At times, Jews can fall victim to a focus on the Shulchan Aruch that obscures our vision. We can think that as long as our observance of Halacha is strict, we are good Jews. The Novominsker came to remind us of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s teaching, that the mitzvot are deputies of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, prayers in the form of a deed, vehicles to bring us closer to God’s presence and to expand God’s presence in our world.

Blessed is the life of the zaddik; precious to God is his soul.